Crime Story

Beneath the growth and the glitter, violence is becoming the real narrative of Las Vegas

Damon Hodge

"Criminologists believe that the low clearance rate shown by Las Vegas (police) is indicative that crime is difficult to control in an area that is currently growing rapidly in population and where there is a very large influx of tourists."

—Analysis of FBI data by Chicago's Emergency Response and Research Institute, 1994

"We don't have enough cops to keep Las Vegas safe."

—Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, September 2004

I'm standing where Shiloh Edsitty nearly died. Drive through the gates at Camden Tiara Apartments, make two lefts, park on the right side, closest to the first Dumpster, and proceed to the sidewalk, past the gray power box flanked by the leafless tree. Stop by the stairway. Now look down. Here is where Edsitty stood on November 8, battered and bleeding, knife protruding from his chest, fleeing from a killer. Now look up. Sixteen stairs lead to the second-floor apartment where the 12-year-old boy saw James Valdez fatally stab his mother, Teresa Tilden, turning his home into a murder scene, his life upside down and adding another sad chapter to a year-long tale of violence.

• • • Bloody Beginning • • •

2004 Got off to a deadly start, as these headlines attest:

Man, 75, arrested in stabbing death (January 3). Police find man fatally shot in alley (January 4). Attempted murder of officer alleged (January 6). Argument at apartment ends in shooting death (January 15). Execution-style slaying, North Las Vegas police search for suspects (January 21). Victim dead in hotel room (January 21). Police kill gunman outside school (January 22). 84-year-old killed, son arrested in father's slaying (January 22). Woman arrested in apartment blaze (January 22). Police officer shoots, kills 'polite' robber (January 23). Man's nude body found in desert (January 26). Two charged in Henderson man's death (January 30).

• • • Criminal Tendencies • • •

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas—Eighth Most Dangerous Metropolitan Area in America!

Surprised by the ranking? It comes from Kansas-based research firm Morgan Quitno Press, which tallies data from four major crimes, or Part 1 offenses (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and felony aggravated assault), as well as property crimes to compile its annual list of the safest metropolitan areas and cities. Except for murder and auto theft—Las Vegas police also include burglary and larceny as major crimes—Part 1 offenses are up in year-over-year comparisons through September: 51,848 this year, compared to 49,426 for the same period last year and 35,958 five years ago. Even with the increased numbers, the No. 8 ranking is hard to believe.

This is Las Vegas.

The world's current "It" city, a place relentlessly extolled as the next great metropolis, lauded as one of the best places to live and to do business. Wall Street's on the bandwagon, giddy at a spate of investor-fueled billion-dollar casinos scheduled to open in the next few years. So are celebrity chefs, and an endless cadre of out-of-town journalists rehashing the already reported on (the sin is back in Sin City). Major League Baseball even has the hots for the town.

If palpable, the danger certainly doesn't seem pervasive. There are no crime-ridden high-rise developments like those plaguing Detroit, no gangs as virulent and genocidal as those in Los Angeles (where gang murders double and often triple all Vegas homicides) or Chicago (America's murder capital in 2003), no 40-year-history of battling community deterioration and time-worn acquiescence toward crime as in certain Baltimore neighborhoods. Scott Morgan, president of Morgan Quitno Press, isn't surprised by Vegas' poor showing.

"Las Vegas is one of those odd kinds of places. ... It doesn't do poorly in city rankings of safety because it has a smaller population (compared to other cities that finished high)," Morgan says. "But it doesn't do as well as a metropolitan area because Metro covers more than just the city of Las Vegas. When you compile all crimes for the jurisdictions it covers, even the surrounding cities that have less crime than Las Vegas, the numbers go up."

So why haven't we noticed the crime all around us—the 51,000-plus major crimes? Why haven't we been moved to action, demanding more cops (and agreeing to pay higher property taxes to get them) rather than waiting for the sheriff to cry about understaffing? Are we so caught up in everyday tedium—deadlines to meet, kids to pick up, bills to pay—that we've failed to notice our city becoming more dangerous?

The headlines come almost daily, the news reports nearly every night: Man shot. Body found. Woman charged. Officer kills suspect. Are we practicing willful ignorance? Or is this a coping response? We hear about things after the fact, so there's nothing we can do about them now. We aren't directly affected (it didn't happen to me or anyone I know; those types of things occur in certain parts of town to certain types of people), so we quickly file the news in the back of our minds.

Meantime, crime engulfs our city—entailing more than just gang violence in parts of North Las Vegas and West Las Vegas and drug-dealing in portions of East Las Vegas. It's police investigating a nightclub Ecstasy ring allegedly run by Israeli mobsters and meth labs cropping up in motel rooms and in the desert. It's casino heists and convenience-store robberies. Auto thefts and burglaries in pricey northwest neighborhoods (burglars recently stole a safe from former mayor Jan Jones' $2 million home). Home invasions targeting the elderly, and Internet predators looking for young victims. Like the Beltway, crime rings the Valley. Even the most hyped communities aren't immune—not Summerlin (which has seen a murder-suicide and an officer shooting a suspect in a home-invasion), not Green Valley (which has experienced a murder in a private school parking lot, a domestic dispute that turned deadly and a drive-by shooting).

It may only be a matter of time before crime reaches your doorstep.

• • • Crime Scene: 900 Block of Doolittle Avenue • • •

Sadly West Las Vegas has become an all-too-familiar backdrop for violence, each headline a dispiriting setback for a community with potential and energy and a desire to transcend its reputation. (Drive-by shooting injures man in doorway, October 13; Boy inside home is victim of drive-by shooting, November 3, Whole lot of gunshots left toddler hurt, November 4).

This white building you see as you turn on to Doolittle Avenue from H Street is called the "Post"—American Legion Post 10. Saturday nights here find a mostly black crowd. Mostly older gentlemen shooting the shit with each other, Bloods gang members from the government-subsidized housing project across the street hanging out, a mover or two from the black community shooting pool.

Walk outside the gate and you run into Sunset Palms, a gated apartment complex the color of sandstone. Further down the street is the new Matt Kelly Elementary, a two-story brown building and, next to it, the old facility.

Around 11 p.m. on November 27, Michael Jones allegedly gunned down fellow 16-year-old Rayshond Jones on Doolittle. Swooping in after hearing shots, a Metro officer saw five men running to a parked car near Sunset Palms. Police found guns in the car and Jones' body near an adjacent park that connects to the West Las Vegas Library. Jones has been charged with murder—as an adult.

• • • The Bigger You Are, the More Crime You Court • • •

New residents are coming, so we have to build. But has breakneck growth had a deleterious effect on safety?

Our hyperkinetic real-estate market, in which houses are thrown up like so many blocks of Legos, hasn't only priced folks out of home ownership, but has sent apartment rents soaring, forcing many people into apartments in less-desirable areas and fueling a debate that's raged for years: whether multi-family residences bring higher crime.

In a 1998 article, "Debunking the Home ownership Myth," for the National Multi Housing Council, a trade group for the nation's largest apartment operators, Gary Kachudurian disputes the theory: "This commonly held assumption is based primarily on faulty perceptions of who lives in today's apartment communities. When analyzed on a per-unit basis, there is no evidence that the rate of police activity is higher in apartment communities than in single-family residences. In fact, apartment owners, sensitive to neighborhood fears, are concentrating more efforts on crime prevention and risk management. Indeed, one of the fastest growing segments of the apartment industry is the luxury property sector, which attracts residents, in part, because of amenities such as built-in alarms and controlled access systems."

Kachudurian says today's apartment dwellers are a ripped-from-the-census mix: "For example, one in 10 apartment households makes more than $50,000 a year; 30 percent of all apartment households have incomes that put them in the top half of the national income distribution; 70 percent of all renters are age 30 or older; and 20 percent of renter households are married couples, half of whom have at least one child."

But Kachudurian's research doesn't jibe with local reality. Many of the most troubled apartment complexes, in areas like 28th Street, Twain and Spencer and Martin Luther King and Carey don't have high-income earners and are usually dominated by one ethnicity. Some are run by owners who aren't sensitive to "neighborhood fears."

Such fears necessitated the federal Crime Free Multi-Housing Program, which trains landlords in such areas as management, pre-screening tenants, unit security, evictions and more. Metro implemented its initiative—one of more than 1,800 cities in 44 states—in 1995, partly because other efforts weren't working.

"The Neighborhood Watch Program, by itself, just wasn't all that successful for apartments, due to the fact that there is a higher transient nature of residents, apathy and complacency regarding ownership and territoriality of the facility, and architectural design differences. ... Therefore, something else had to be done to address the ever-increasing crime rates in apartment communities," according to data from the department.

Growth keeps dwindling the cops-per-residents ratio, which was 2.6 per 1,000 before the city police and county sheriff's department merged in 1973 and has hovered around 1.55 since. While hiring more cops seems like the easy answer—with property tax increases to fund the move—the hard part has been convincing voters. Residents have voted against higher taxes for cops (1993, 1998) as many times as they have for it (1988 and 2004; lawmakers still must approve this year's ballot request). Even if it passes, Sheriff Bill Young will only get a third of the nearly 400 cops he says he needs to meet policing demands in a growing city.

The model here is "low taxation," says Michael Scott, so citizens might always be averse to higher tariffs. Scott, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, says, "It's certainly held true with efforts to hire more police."

As great as the record-breaking tourism haul is—40 million-plus visitors this year—it, too, dilutes police presence. On any given day, tourists can swell the population by 100,000—and they rely on the same police force locals do.

"Tourists are often accidental victims," says Kenneth Peak, a University of Nevada, Reno, criminal justice professor and author of Crimes Against Tourists. "They make an easy mark, and tourism locations like Las Vegas are conducive to crime due to nightlife and hedonistic culture. Plus, people on vacation are less likely to take safety precautions. Many crimes committed against tourists occur near airports because they can get lost and taken advantage of."

Heretical as it may sound, Peak says tourism is a significant cause of crime: "Tourism-dependent cities routinely have problems with prostitution, gangs, fencing stolen goods, organized crime, convenience store and bar robberies, burglary, victimizing the elderly and casino-related crimes."

• • • Crime Scene: 400 Block of North Eastern Avenue • • •

Love can make a person do crazy things. But so can anger, hatred and jealously. It can make a person kill. Anger and jealousy made Carlos Ortiz kill his wife, Maria Ortiz, in plain view of police officers.

Though he sued Maria for divorce in October 1995, the Ortizes legal separation wasn't official until February 1997. In the interim, the couple ferociously battled over their daughter. Maria won custody and child support. Court mediation was recommended to repair the relationship. When that didn't work, Maria got a restraining order against her estranged husband. Allegedly angry about rumors that Maria was dating another man, Carlos Ortiz, who'd been arrested previously on allegations of domestic violence, sought vengeance.

Around 1:40 a.m. on September 28, 2004, Carlos Ortiz pulled up to a light in his sedan in the 400 block of Eastern Avenue. The street hosts on- and off-ramps to U.S. 95. Coming off U.S. 95 north, you hit a mini-mart and KFC. Going on to it, you pass a white church, a dentist's office and Winchell's Donut House.

Carlos Ortiz had kidnapped Maria and their 11-year-old daughter in tow. Stopped at a light, Maria spotted two officers, honked the horn, then screamed. Ortiz shot her dead. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

• • • Concerned about Crime? • • •

So when voters reject higher property taxes next year for more cops, does that mean they're pro-crime?

Perhaps a better question: Does Las Vegas take its crime problems seriously?

UNLV criminal justice Professor William Sousa says the former is a complicated question, at worst, and convoluted, at best. Maybe they're not pro-crime but anti-taxes.

"The LA City Council has routinely not backed chief of police Bill Bratton in his quest for more funding for more officers," Sousa says. "Their argument is that it's hard to justify taking money away from schools or some other form of government and redirecting it to policing. Crime becomes a financial matter more than a public-safety matter."

Politicians have questioned Las Vegas police requests for additional funding for decades. In May, County Commissioner Lynette Boggs McDonald, who serves on the Metro Fiscal Affairs board, voted against sending a quarter-cent sales tax advisory question for more police to the commission to be put on the election ballot. (Voters approved the advisory question; now it awaits legislative and county commission approval).

"I really want to know what I am getting for my dollars," she told the Las Vegas Sun, claiming that Sheriff Bill Young never detailed how the money would be spent.

Certainly, money earmarked for putting cops on the street doesn't go to hiring office assistants. Accelerating property taxes have stuck homeowners with huge bills, prompting some lawmakers to propose a 6-percent cap.

"Often when police departments call for more police, the counter argument is that there is no research out there that adding police will reduce crime. And that's true. Research suggests that the number of officers don't matter ... don't have an impact on the crime rate," Sousa says. But there is research that suggests that what cops do on the job does matter. Community policing, getting out and meeting residents, teaching them about crime prevention—proactive steps do have an impact. Using that argument, then, numbers can matter.

"The problem with Las Vegas is that it's a vastly under-policed police department. There are so few officers to undertake the additional proactive crime-prevention activities," Sousa says. "Reactive policing is good for responding to calls but not necessarily good for preventing crime. When police are proactive, they can push for things that help them, like better street lighting."

UNLV criminology Professor Randall Sheldon doubt's if there is a true barometer for determining if a city is serious about stopping crime. The only real gauge: conducting surveys. Nor does he see passage of the more-cops advisory question as a clear mandate—35 percent of the populace opposed it; voters might not be so generous next time.

"I think maybe people are starting to understand the need," he says.

It's anyone's guess if crime will ever reach a point that it threatens our city's image, but should it, one casino executive says the Valley's biggest imagemaker could help.

William P. Weidner is president and chief executive officer of Las Vegas Sands Inc., owner of The Venetian. In a 1999 Review-Journal editorial, he insisted the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is antiquated and duplicitous ("the development of multibillion-dollar Las Vegas destination resorts has been the real driving force behind the increase in visitation ...").

Eliminating the LVCVA, he argues, will divert the annual $100 million-plus haul from room taxes to "education, traffic congestion, increasing crime and drug abuse and demand for goverment services" without any adverse effect on the city.

• • • Crime Scene: 1800 Block of Battle Born Drive • • •

Summerlin begins at Buffalo and Vegas drives. A block to the east is the Sorrento neighborhood. Come west on Vegas, turn on Pacific Terrace, turn left on Pacific Heights, right on Battle Born and you're smack dab in the middle of suburbia. House after giant house, SUVs dot driveways. Lawns are manicured and well-kept. A handful of homes are draped in Christmas lights. All in all, the kind of neighborhood you aspire to live in.

Certainly not the kind of neighborhood used to murder. On Thanksgiving Day, 25-year-old Susie Aguillar-Moreno killed her boyfriend's mother, 71-year-old Guadalupe Hernandez, during a family gathering.

"We could not believe what happened. I don't know what came over her," Horacio Guerrero, the victim's brother told the Review-Journal. "We don't know why she snapped—because, if it had been an accident, she never would have left, you know."

Most neighbors refused to go on record about the crime. Mae MacDonald, who's lived on Battle Born for seven years, made an exception, telling the Las Vegas Sun: "Nothing, nothing like that has ever happened on the street."

• • • Times Have Changed • • •

"One story can't do it justice."

Chris McGoey is talking about encapsulating local crime—dissecting it, apportioning it, then wrapping it and repackaging it all neat and tidy. A California-based expert in security and crime prevention, he's worked with local police over the years—in the '70s, assisting convenience-store owners with protecting their properties, and recently, working with Metro's crime-free multi-housing program.

Each of the Part 1 offenses could merit its own study. Because crime is broad, so idiosyncratic, he says—residential is different from property crime, urban different from tourism-related crime—it's impossible to pigeonhole.

"You could do a six-part series on crime in Las Vegas," he says. "How many words do you have? You need 20,000, it's so complex. With the tourism factor, you've got more and more people in town and police can only respond to so many crimes. Las Vegas is always going to have a higher than normal amount of crime."

The criminal landscape is different from when McGoey came to Vegas three decades ago—the mob was skimming off casinos then—and so to is the legal panorama, McGoey says. Officers are more constrained ("They can't do anything without having groups watching their every move and ready to sue if something goes wrong") and are pulled in too many directions. Then there's the fundamental problem of understaffing in police departments.

"By the time cops change shifts, [new officers coming] are already behind," he says. "They've got to respond to all these calls of service ... there so many calls for service that they can't even think about doing proactive police work or community policing."

A variety of factors ensure that overburdened cops stay busy: Chronic offender initiatives that human rights activists claim entrap habitual criminals; scant opportunities to work in prison (enough jobs for about 10 percent of the state's 10,000 inmates); a public defenders' office with some of the lowest trial rates in the nation—low-level crooks can plea bargain and be back on the streets in no time.

• • • Crime Scene: 2100 Block of Warm Springs • • •

Camden Tiara Apartments is a nice-looking place, a well-kept, suburban area on Warm Springs Road, near Eastern Avenue, a few Frisbee throws west of Sunset Park, where a few guys are tossing Frisbees to dogs on a December afternoon. Outside the gated complex is a Bank of America branch, an auto repair shop and Memphis Championship Barbecue. Inside Camden, it's holiday season—red ribbons affixed to windows and ornaments to doors, balconies draped with Christmas lights and red stockings.

Save for a few school kids, most of the folks outside are maintenance workers. They trim trees, scoop fallen leaves and repaint the bright-yellow speed bumps. A trio lounges in a storage shed in the northwest corner. A youngish-looking guy with a backwards cap drives up and gets out, tools clickety-clanking in his belt. I ask: "Where was that woman and her son stabbed?" He stares, stutters, then mumbles so his peers can't hear: "2160."

I drive to the scene, get out and begin thinking about what Edsitty, a Schofield Middle School student, must have felt as he tried to save his mother from her attacker, as he realized he'd have to flee to escape his own death.

Coming down the stairs, he had three options: To the right, he'd have to scale a 6-foot wall; straight ahead were apartments; turn left and he'd be able to get to the manager's office or the exit gate. Edsitty wouldn't make it far, collapsing. Valdez pounced, stabbing him in the stomach—one of six knife wounds—then chased off a security guard before fleeing. Edsitty was hospitalized for three weeks before being released to his former foster mother Vivian Powell. They now live in New York. Valdez is awaiting trial on murder charges.

Macabre as it sounds, visiting crime scenes can personalize the event (Someone died here!) and remove psychological barriers of detachment, unconcern hopefully giving way to understanding (crime can occur anywhere, anytime to anyone) and not defeatism (I don't have to be fearful). At each crime scene, life is still being lived: Across from where Edsitty nearly died, a young boy, bespectacled and rotund, a junior-high student by the looks, tosses a football. In the parking lot of the Post, five black men unload bags of charcoal and unwrap tinfoiled meats; a sixth guy cleans a massive barbecue pit. At Eastern and U.S. 95, a KFC worker changes the letters on the sign, announcing a lower price for popcorn chicken. It's Christmas light-hanging time on Battle Born Drive—men scaling ladders to weave neon through trees and on roofs.

So what's the surge in crime mean for this city? Should we pack up and move to Amherst, New York, the safest city in country according to Morgan Quitno Press? Would that merely move the problem elsewhere and not solve it?

Maybe McGoey is right: Since you can't deconstruct the essence of crime in a few thousand words, neither can you address all the factors that exacerbate it—circumstances like poverty and low education; moral defects like insatiable greed and misplaced machismo; feelings like despair and hatred—in a few years, maybe even a few decades.

• • • Deadly Ending • • •

The year is ending just as it began—violently, sadly.

Home invasion suspects go on trial (December 2). LV man arrested in hostage situation (December 3). Double slaying puzzling to investigators (December 3). Boy, 16, to stand trial as adult in killing (December 7). Woman found dead in apartment identified (December 9). Preliminary hearing set on holiday killing (December 9). Police identify victim found dead in home (December 11). Three teens sought in Saturday slaying (December 14). Woman killed outside school in Green Valley (December 15). Teen arrested in cab holdup (December 16). Man killed after lunging at police with sword (December 20). Parking lot killing—Drug debt prompted shooting, police say (December 23). Officer shoots, kills carjacking suspect (December 27). Three killed in Valley in weekend violence (December 27). Man killed acquaintance, self, police say (December 28). Three men wounded; police seek suspect (December 29).

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